Guide to the Loire regions

Saint-Pourçain


Attractions


Chantelle

This list of attractions is designed to be informative rather than comprehensive. Starting with Souvigny, the commentary works its way from north to south in a chronological order through all of the various communes within the wine appellation – and beyond - and finishes in Vichy , which is highly recommended as the base for exploring the region. 



Souvigny
Souvigny is around 15 kilometres to the west of Moulins and was once the centre of the Duchy of the Bourbonnais, although the village’s architectural style encompasses influences from the Auvergne, Burgundy and the Berry. It lies on the route to Santiago de Compostela and was an important stop over point for pilgrims. At the centre, the fine Romanesque church was built between the 11th and 12th Century. It’s regarded as one of the finest ecclesiastical buildings in the Bourbonnais. The front is dominated by its two bell towers, connected since the 15th Century by a rose window.

It was the feudal lord, Aimard (or Adhémar), lieutenant of the Duke of Aquitaine and an ancestor of the Bourbons, who gifted the land and an earlier church, dedicated to Saint-Pierre, to the newly formed order of Benedictine monks of Cluny in 915. The current edifice contains various treasures, including the giant sculptures of Saint-Mayeul, the fourth Abbot of Cluny (d. 994) and his successor, Saint-Odilon (d. 1049), who both died in the monestary here. The two saints were joined in the same tomb and Souvigny became a destination for pilgrims who bought with them gifts, ensuring that the town profited as a result. Their sepulchures were thought to have been lost during the time of the Revolution, but archaeologists discovered the tomb within the abbey in 2001.

The edifice also closely resembles the abbey at Cluny (Souvigny was the first Clunisien priory) and houses the tombs of Louis II, duc de Bourbon, comte de Clermont (d.1410) and his wife, Anne d’Auvergne (d.1416) along with his grandson, Charles I (d.1456) and his spouse, Agnès de Bourgogne (d.1476). The church is now dedicated jointly to Saint-Pierre and Saint-Paul.

The small ornamental garden was recreated in 1993 and contains a token vineyard, testament to the legacy of wine made by the monks. Set in the cloisters, a small museum houses a two metre high octagonal pillar of stone dating back to the 12th Century which is carved with images representing the zodiac. Each illustrates the labours of the months, with September dedicated to the grape harvest. Other exhibits include a mint of silver coins produced by the monks here during the Middle Ages.

Eglise Prieurale Saint-Pierre-et-Saint-Paul
T : + 33 4 70 43 60 51
www.ville-souvigny.com

Closed on Tuesday for guided visits. A small charge levied.

Musée du Pays de Souvigny
Place Aristide Briand
T : + 33 4 70 43 99 75
Musee.souvigny@wanadoo.fr
souvignybourbonnais@wanadoo.fr
www.ville-souvigny.com  

Open from Easter to November but closed on Tuesdays. Expect a modest entry charge.

Jardin du Prieuré de Souvigny
Open every day except Tuesdays, Christmas Day and New Year’s Day. 

Chemilly
Situated just eleven kilometres south of Moulins, Chemilly is the northern-most of all the villages in the Saint-Pourçain appellation. The church of Saint-Denis dates back from the last period of Roman-Bourbonnais in the 11th Century and is more classically Burgundian in style than Auvergnat. A look at the map shows the historical significance of the village, situated on the crossroads of two major Roman roads; the first linking between Paris in the north with Lyon, whilst the second acted as the main Atlantic to central European highway. 

Besson
Besson is an open and attractive village situated between Souvigny and the Allier. It hosts a handful of shops and busy bar cum lunchtime hostellerie. At its centre stands the large 12th Century Romanesque church dedicated to Saint-Martin, a popular deity around these parts. Close by, on the butte of Saint-Blaise, there is evidence of a settlement that dates back over ten centuries. The majority of Besson’s vineyards are situated to the east, on either side of the road to Chemilly. 


Château de Fourchaud
Between the communes of Besson and Bresnay is the abandoned fortress of Fourchaud, its tall, rectangular structure making it appear impregnable. It is considered to be the best example of its type in the Bourbonnais. The origin of the château dates back to 1530 and takes its name from Jean de Fourchaud (a particularly influential family during this period). A second edifice, Le Petit-Fourchaud, was erected a few hundred metres away from the main fortress at the end of the 15th Century following a domestic dispute. The site was classified as an historic monument in 1932.

Bresnay
In his work Description générale du Bourbonnais, written in 1469, French geographer Nicolas de Nicolay (1517 – 1583) declared Bresnay a beau bourg et paroisse en bon pays de vignoble produisant quantité de bons vins. Its church, dedicated to Saint-Barthélémy, dates back to the 11th Century. Today, Bresnay is more important for the raising of cattle.

Châtel-de-Neuvre
A large village situated on the main Moulins to Saint-Pourçain road. Driving south, just as one starts to exit the village, a sign points towards a viewpoint. From here, there’s a view directly down to the Allier and in the distance one can see the outline of the mountains of the northern Beaujolais. Next to the bellevue stands the modest Romanesque church dedicated to Saint-Laurent. It’s one of the oldest in the Bourbonnais and was founded on the site of an old Roman temple towards the end of the 9th Century as a dependence of the priory at Souvigny.  

Monétay-sur-Allier
Monétay, as the name suggests, has a privileged position on the hillside over looking the river. Although within the appellation, it is probably more associated, historically, with the hamlet of La Chaise (or La Chaize) which, between 1413 and the mid 19th Century, was the most important point of embarkation for the wines of the region on their journey northwards to Paris. A statue erected in 1985 on the road down towards the old port has a figurine of the Virgin standing on a barge clutching a cluster of grapes and guarding two barrels of wine that rest behind her. A second port for the shipment of wine once stood at l’Epine, two kilometres further upstream. 

Meillard
A pretty hamlet with numerous restored modest village houses (and more which are ripe for development). At the centre of the village is the 12th Century church of Saint-Martin with its strong Romanesque influences. Besides the church, Meillard also boasts an attractive 15th Century manoir and an 18th Century hunting lodge. It was described by Nicolas de Nicolay, in 1569, as being dans un beau pays de laboureur et de vignes.

Contigny
Contigny sits close to the confluence of the Allier and the Sioule, although is set well back from the river, a legacy of occasional past flooding. The origins are Gallo-Roman when the village was known as Continiacus. The church of Saint-Martial was established in the 11th Century as a dependence of the Saint-Pourçain priory. With the town on the lower ground close to the river, there is little immediate evidence of vineyards; one needs to head back towards the main Moulins to Saint-Pourçain road to locate them on some east-facing slopes.

Verneuil-en-Bourbonnais
This pretty half-timbered village was once under the control of the ducs de Bourbon although pottery and statues discovered over the centuries helps prove that Verneuil was an important community during Gallo-Roman times. In the centre there are the remains of a fortified manor built by Louis II in the 1600s. Despite being under some sort of restoration programme there appears to be little left to preserve, with most of the stonework pillaged over the centuries to build other dwellings.

The 12th Century church of Saint-Pierre sits on a quiet back road behind the château. Inside, there are murals dating back to the 15th Century.

If you’re in the area, you’ll no doubt be intrigued to visit the local museum dedicated to the history of washing; the Musée du Lavage et du Repassage. Starting with the first recorded origins of Egyptians using hot stones, the tour moves through various cultures and ages until it reaches the first electric washing machines of the 20th Century. Fascinating!

Musée du Lavage et du Repassage
Le Bourg
Place de la Fontaine
T : + 33 4 70 45 91 53 

Saint-Pourçain-sur-Sioule
The town of Saint-Pourçain takes its name from the surf Portianus. Born into servitude in Louchy-Montfand, he tended to the swine herd of his master, Mangulfus. Legend has it that Portianus miraculously restored the sight of the overlord who then released him into the hands of the local monks. He became the second abbot of the abbey of Saint-Croix in 481 and is said to have performed other miracles during his lifetime.

The 9th Century saw a migration of monks from Noirmoutiers to the Auvergne following persecution in the north by the Normans . The monks were carrying the remains of Saint-Philibert with them. The priest had set up a monastery at Noirmoutiers on the Atlantic coast close to Nantes in 674. They arrived in Saint-Pourçain in 870 and were readily accepted into the community, some were encouraged to settle whilst others elected to continue onto the abbey at Tournus on the banks of the river Saône in Burgundy . Nothing remains of the monastery (it was dissolved in 1790 after the French Revolution), but the 15th Century cloister, known as the Cour des Bénédictins. In the same year the vast abbey was downgraded to the status of a parish church. Built with a bewildering array of Romanesque and Gothic architectural styles dating between the 11th and 18th Centuries, the misericords on the choir stools alone make a tour inside worthwhile. Carved during the 1400s, the images cover a range of subjects, from animals, mythical creatures and presumably some risqué self-portraits by the monks themselves.

The town enjoyed great wealth during the 10th and 13th Centuries as it evolved into a major centre for trading. Its importance was rewarded when it became one of eight towns in France to mint its own currency. In 1480 the inhabitants of the town erected a clock tower, the Tour de l’Horloge, to celebrate the commune’s emancipation. Originally a watchtower, it stands very close to the ancient abbey with its own steeple. The image of the two together has long since been used as the image on all official documents and regularly appears as an illustration on the wine labels of the region.  

Below the Tour de l’Horloge in a 15th Century house, is the maison de baillage, which serves as the wine museum. Established in 1970 by curator and co-operative œnologue, Jean Baudier, it contains 11 rooms with 1,300 exhibits that span almost 2,000 years of winemaking tradition in the Bourbonnais. A spiral staircase leads to the tower and also allows access to several beamed rooms. The Museum’s centre piece is a 17th Century wooden wine press with a capacity of 300 kilograms which, apparently, took four men to operate. 

Cour des Bénédictins
Maison du Bailli
Saint-Pourçain-sur-Sioule
T: + 33 4 70 45 32 73
T: + 33 4 70 45 62 07
Ot.stpourcain@wanadoo.fr
www.toursimesaintpourcinois.com

Open during the afternoons of Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday in May and June, then every day (except Monday) in July and August.

The town also hosts a Saturday market which spills out from a dedicated halle and into the main square.

Bransat
Bransat, or Branciacius to give its Gallo-Roman name, sits on a south facing slope just off the Saint-Pourçain to Montluçon road. The bridge that spans the river Gaduet has its origins in Roman times. The 11th Century church of Saint-Georges is its central feature and is best viewed from the road from Saulcet. Despite its historic significance as a viticultural commune there are no independent growers based in the commune today. 



Saulcet

‘Saulcet et un terroir à siegle et un grand vignoble’
From Description générale du Bourbonnais by Nicolas de Nicolay, 1569

Even after nearly four-and-a-half centuries, Nicolas de Nicolay’s statement that Saulcet is at the centre of the vineyards still holds true. Whilst the number of vines in Saint-Pourçain may have diminished ten-fold, this commune remains the single most important in terms of vineyards planted and number of independent vignerons who are active here.

The commune is distinguished by the small Romanesque church that sits in an open square in the centre of the village; its tall, thin spire can be seen thrusting up out of the small valley as one drives around the surrounding countryside. Dedicated to Saint-Julien, it is notable inside for its relatively well preserved murals which date from the 12th, 14th and 15th Centuries. The frescos are all themed around the legend of the three lives (and deaths) of Saint-Jacques.

Just to the north of the village, close to one of the region’s most renowned vineyards, is the tower of Penaud . It was constructed by local curé, Claude Garat, as a sort of hermit’s retreat and library. 

Louchy-Montfand
The local church is dedicated to St Pourçain in honour of Pourcianus, keeper of the pigs, who was born and raised in Louchy. The most compelling reason to drive through Louchy is to get a closer look at its medieval fortified château. From the main road it could be mistaken for a modern grain silo such is the shape. It is best viewed from within the vineyard as one enters the commune from the direction of Saulcet. Photographs taken during the last two decades of the 19th Century show vineyards extending up to the foot of fortress. Today, the land immediately around the property is overgrown with scrub, giving the impression that the whole place is in ruin. It remains under private ownership and it is not possible to visit.

Cesset
At the south-west of Saint-Pourçain, Cesset is a quiet hamlet located in the fold of some gently rolling farmland. Its pretty little 12th Century church is dedicated to Saint-Barthélémy and is typically Auvergnat in style.

Montord
First mentioned by name at the end of the 13th Century, Montord sits on a minor crossroads. Its church is one of many within the region to be dedicated to Saint-Martin. Today it is a community of mixed farming, with vineyards scattered around the arable land.

Fleuriel
The church of Saint-Marie de Fleurie is an imposing edifice erected in the 11th and 12th Centuries and was classified as a national monument in 1954.  

Chareil-Cintrat
The village is something of a non-event, but as one drives through from north to south, the road winds down a slope and into the valley of the Bouble. At its foot is the Château de Chareil, distinguished by its pepper-pot towers. Its origins are in the Middle Ages when it was in the ownership of the Bourbons but was transformed from a feudal stronghold in the 16th Century. Inside there are murals that were painted between 1560 and 1570, a period known as the seconde Renaissance française, which depict astrological and mythical themes binded between images of clusters of grapes which recall the vines that once surrounded the château. It was declared a national monument in 1958 and is now home to the two hectare Conservatoire des Anciens Cépages which was established here between 1998 and 2000. The château is open every day except Monday between mid June and mid September.

Château de Chareil
Bellevue
T : + 33 4 70 56 94 28
www.monuments-nationaux.fr 

Chantelle
The village of Chantelle is probably best viewed from the hamlet of Deneuille-lès-Chantelle (see below). From here, one gets a lovely view of the Roman-Auvergnat abbey of Saint-Vincent, founded in 937 on a rocky promontary surrounded on three sides by the river Bouble as it bends sinuously through the wooded gorge that separates the two villages.

During the 3rd Century it became an important Roman stronghold due to its strategic importance; it was once situated on the ancient route which ran between Clermont-Ferrand and the city of Brest, in the far north of Brittany. It saw many notable early visitors including Sidone Apollinaire, the Bishop of Clermont between 430 and 489, and Gregory of Tours wrote of the town in 480. Fifty years later it was ravaged by Thierry (or Theuderic), son of Clovis, whilst under the control of his half-brother, Childebert.

But Chantelle is probably best known for its strong connection with the Bourbons who erected a fortress here in the 11th Century. In 1408, Duke Louis II of Bourbon granted a charter of freedom to the town’s inhabitants. It became a country retreat for Pierre II, duc de Bourbon (1438 – 1503), and Anne de Beaujeau (also known as Anne de France) who spent time here together when not residing at their palace in Moulins. After the Bourbonnais region was reunited with the rest of France in 1531, the château was used for the next century as a garrison. The town’s troubled history continued when it was razed to the ground by Richelieu in 1635 in his bid to reduce the number of fortified properties which could be used by noble decenters as strongholds against Royal rule. In 1853 the church and buildings were given a reprise by the Benedictine nuns who now sell a range of cosmetic products they developed 50 years ago. The abbey is closed on Sundays and the shop on Monday afternoons.

Eglise Saint-Vincent – Prieuré des Bénédictins
T: 33 4 70 56 62 55
info@benedictine-chantelle.fr
www.benedictins-chantelle.com

After Saint-Pourcain itself, Chantelle is the most important commune within the appellation and a destination for visitors who come to see the priory and to walk along the 12 kilometre stretch of the Bouble gorge. Each Sunday there is a morning market in front of the large neo-gothic church dedicated to Saint-Nicolas, constructed between 1877 and 1890, replacing the ruins of an older church. Close up, it appears too large for both its surroudings and the size of its potential congregation.

Deneuille-lès-Chantelle
Whist this little hamlet might share the name with its illustrious neighbour on the opposite bank of the Bouble, they remain unconnected due to the depth of the gorge that separates them. Dominant at the edge of the cliff is an attractive maison bourgeoise, the oldest part of which dates back to the 16th Century. It takes the name Le Chambord from the family that resided here from 1666 until the Revolution.

Fourilles
Fourilles is included here as one of the 19 communes of the Saint-Pourçain appellation, although there are no independent vignerons in the village and very little sign of vinous activity. In reality, it is a small and relatively undistinguished hamlet just to the east of Chantelle. Its simple, upright church was constructed in 1880 in the Roman style. 

Charroux
Classified in 1982 as ‘One of the Most Beautiful Villages of France ’. This outstanding village has its origins in the Gallo-Romain period and was subsequently fortified by the ducs de Bourbon. Etymologically, the origin of the name Charroux is derived from the Latin quadrivium meaning crossroads with access beyond the village gates connecting it directly to Poitiers in the west, Clermont Ferrand in the south, Bourges in the north and Lyon in the east. At the western side of the village stands the Porte d’Occident or Porte de l’Horologe. This ancient fortified bell tower has a gallery that would have permitted residents to survey the countryside for possible invaders. The bell itself dates back to 1549. On the eastern side is the Porte d’Orient which was constructed in the 13th Century. As with its occidental counterpart, it was built to survey the surrounding landscape. Its role changed, however, in the 18th Century when it was converted to a dovecote.

Like most fortified hamlets, the village is formed in a series of concentric circles. In Charroux the centre is a well preserved grassed courtyard, known as La Cour des Dames, and was used by the old inhabitants as a central meeting place.

The small Romanesque church of Saint-Jean-Baptiste dates back to the 12th Century and was classified as an Historic Monument in 1905. It is topped with an octagonal bell tower with eight unusual gothic style windows. Also worth seeing is the small half timbered market hall constructed in 1821, the well worn cobbled floor a testament to nearly two centuries of trading.  

The village itself sits on a ridge of limestone which was easily excavated to create wells for a ready supply of water. In addition, numerous houses have cellars which were once dedicated for the making, raising and storing of wine. The vineyards were sited to the south-east of the village in the direction of Jenzat. At one point during the 1760s the village supported 47 vignerons and even as late as the 1920s Charroux maintained just over 100 hectares of vines. Today, sadly, there are none and the commune sits just outside the southern-most reaches of the Saint-Pourçain appellation. 

In the 16th Century the community supported 4,000 people, although today the houses are mainly maison-secondaires and the population is less than one-tenth of what it was then. It is well maintained and a popular destination for tourists, attracting over 40,000 visitors a year. In addition to the cultural interests Charroux is home to many artisan craftsmen all keen to display and sell their wares. There is also a museum, established in 1975, which details the chronological development of the village within its 14 rooms.

Musée de Charroux et de son Canton
Rue de la Poulaillerie
T/F: + 33 4 70 56 87 71
toursime@charroux.com
www.musee-charroux.fr
Open every day except Monday from April to September, but phone ahead to check their irregular opening hours.  

Vichy

Vichy is a world renowned spa resort whose heyday was during the mid to late 19th Century. Unsurprisingly, this is consistent with the town’s most dominant architectural period. Whilst the spas attract a wide range of visitors every year, it also has the added attraction of having a casino, opera house and numerous museums. It has also captured the conference business, being a central and easily accessible location. But it is also known, rather sinisterly, as the capital of the French State between 1940 and 1944, when Nazi Germany occupied northern France . The decision to cite the government here was based on the town’s direct links to Paris and also due to the significant number of hotels here which could be commandeered by the authorities to host the Vichy Government. What is now the Aletti Palace Hotel housed the War Ministry, whilst key figures in the regime were based at the now defunct Hôtel du Parc. During the war, Maréchal Pétain and his entourage would arrange for barrels of wine from Saint-Pourçain to be stored in the cellars there. Wine labels, still in existence, are simply marked Saint-Pourçain – Mis en bouteilles aux Caves de l’Hôtel du Parc, Vichy .

It has long been recognised as a place for thermal cures with the Romans first establishing a spa, Vicus Calidus, here during their occupation of Gaul . It became fashionable in the 17th Century with Parisien high society and the nobility of the day coming to take the waters. Most famous was probably the Marquise de Sévigné, a celebrated letter writer, who was born in Paris in 1626. She came to Vichy in 1676 and 1677, staying in an elegant Louis XIII mansion on the banks of the Allier ; the same house used as the residence of Pétain during the occupation. The arrival of rail travel in the 1860s attracted the middle classes and the number of visitors increased ten-fold.

Vichy has a series of springs, the most famous (and palatable) of which is the Célestins. Understandably, it is poured on the best tables in the town. Despite the number of springs in Vichy , the Célestins is the only one to be commercialized; representing about 60 million bottles a year. Others, such as the Grande Grille which surfaces at 40 degrees Celcius and takes its name from the metal grid that used to protect it from the wild animals that once came here to drink, is much less potable.

The springs are found dotted around the town, although several rise or are pumped to one central location, the Halle des Sources, which can be found within a plane tree lined walk in the centre of Vichy . The pump room is a serene place, full of people of all ages sipping from specially commissioned glasses, many grimacing badly after swallowing the most acrid of the sulphur infused waters.

It’s certainly worth the 15 minute stroll that it takes to reach the original Célestins source. Here, within the Louis XV pavilion that protects the spring, one finds the residents of Vichy filling up their own bottles with the faintly pétillant and saline tasting water. The fiche on the wall informs you that the spring dispenses 167 litres of water a minute at a temperature of 22 degrees centigrade from a natural 30 metre deep cavity below. Above and behind the pavilion is the remains of the original 1410 convent after which the source takes its name.

                                                  *****

Tronçais Forest
About an hour’s drive north-west of the St Pourçain vineyards is the Tronçais forest, a 10,600 hectare retreat of ancient oak trees, famed for the quality of their tight-grains and one of the most renowned (and expensive) sources for tonnelleries. 

The system for forestry here was laid down over 300 years ago by Jean-Bapiste Colbert, Minister of Finance to Louis XIV from 1665 until his death in 1683. Neglect and over-exploitation have plagued it in the past, but a system of proper forestry management has been in place since 1835, allowing for a rotational programme that sees oaks felled when they reach their optimum maturity - at approximately 225 years of age.

The cold, continental winters compounded with poor soil ensure that the growth is checked and the wood is toughened, developing a fine grain; essential in the quality of a high-quality wine barrel.    

  See the contact details for the tourist information below.


Tourist Information Offices:



Office de Tourisme en Pays Saint-Pourçinois
29 rue Marcellin-Berthelot
Saint-Pourçain
T : + 33 4 70 45 32 73
F : + 33 4 70 45 60 27
Ot.stpourcain@wanadoo.fr
www.tourismesaintpourcainois.com
You’ll find this next to the river Sioule.

Antenne Touristique de Charroux
5 rue de la Poulaillerie
Charroux
T/F : + 33 4 70 56 87 71
Charroux.tourisme@wanadoo.fr
www.charroux.com

19 rue du Parc
Vichy
T : + 33 4 70 98 71 94
tourisme@ville-vichy.fr
www.vichy-tourisme.com

Office de Tourisme Aumance Tronçais
Place du Champ-de-Foire
Cérilly
T : + 33 4 70 67 55 89
www.pays-de-troncais.com

  


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